It is mid-morning and little girl Nabiritha sits on a wooden stool outside their house in a small village in Baringo County, Kenya.
She is singing along to a solemn gospel tune from a small transistor radio on the window. As the tune fades away, she rises and takes a few faltering steps. She stretches out her hands to touch the mud walls of her family’s small house – it’s her only way to find her way around their homestead and reach her friends and siblings playing nearby.
This has been her life. Seven-year-old Nabiritha has barely been able to see since birth. She has bilateral cataracts. All she can detect is light, and the dark shadows of objects near her eyes.
Nabiritha’s mother Emily says, “We took her to school so that she can be in the company of other children and to also give me time to fend for her and her siblings.”
The mother of four works as a labourer alongside her husband.
It’s estimated that there are about 400,000 blind people in Kenya, with another 750,000 visually impaired. Cataract is the largest cause of avoidable blindness in the country, making up 43% of all cases of blindness.
As well as poor vision, cataracts can also cause ‘wobbling’ eyes and a squint where the eyes point in different directions as was the case with Nabiritha.
According to her parents, Nabiritha was a normal playful baby until she was about four months when they noticed something unusual about her.
I realized that she would not notice me when I passed by but immediately started crying when she heard my voice. She also couldn’t pick toys that I placed besides her to play with.
After her mother took her to the local health clinic, Nabiritha was referred to Nakuru Provincial Hospital and eventually Kijabe Mission hospital where she had sight-saving surgery.
“I was confused because I could barely afford the transport to get there, let alone the Ksh.10,000 (HKD$745) required for surgery,” she said.
“I just went back home to try and seek help from well-wishers.” When she returned to the local health center she was told that The Fred Hollows Foundation Kenya (FHFK) was sponsoring free eye surgery.
Nabiritha was immediately booked for surgery at the Sabatia Eye Hospital, about 200 kilometers away in Vihiga county. The Foundation paid for Nabiritha to be picked up from her home and taken to Sabatia.
She was admitted at the hospital with her mother and was booked in for surgery the following day.
Early in the morning, Nabiritha is led to the examination room where Dr Sarah Sitati, a Pediatric Ophthalmologist, examines her. An hour later, she is wheeled into theatre. Anesthesia is administered and after a brief prayer, Dr Sitati and her team get down to work.
The surgery is finished in an hour. Nabiritha’s eyes are patched to start the healing process.
Meanwhile inside the ward, her mother waits anxiously. She has been praying that the surgery is successful. “I just hope everything turns alright,” she says.
Moments later, Nabiritha is wheeled back into the ward. Her mother’s joy is evident when the nurse announces that everything has turned out well.
Early the next day, Dr Sitati carefully removes the patches. After crying a little bit, Nabiritha opens her eyes and looks straight into her mother’s face. What follows is an emotional moment as the mother and daughter stare at each other for the first time.
“What happened to your face Mum?” she asks, noticing a scar in her mother’s face.
“I was injured by a vehicle,” her mother say, referring to an accident that she was involved in several years ago. “So vehicles injure people?” she asks innocently.
As tears of joy stream down her face, Nabiritha's mother says, “I am happy that my child is able to see me clearly. I never thought this day would finally come. Imagine for all those years my child has never known how I look like. ”
When it’s time to leave the hospital, Nabiritha is excited. She counts the number of beds in her ward one by one. Her one wish is to go home get ready to go to school.
I want to go back to school so that I can learn how to read and write and see my friends.
According to Mark Maina, the Fred Hollows Regional Communications Officer, “Four out of five blind people don’t need to be. It is for this reason that we support eye health workers and equip them to deal with eye health patients."
For the last seven years, The Foundation has supported about 60,000 eye operations and treatments including the training of surgeons, clinical support staff and community health workers.
Dr Sitati says: “Regular eye checkups are vital to ensure good eye health and detect ailments early enough for treatment”.
The following day, Nabiritha begins her journey home. She is overjoyed to meet her family members whom she could only recognize by voice before. Warm embraces follow after which she walks independently down the hilly terrain heading to their house. Awestruck neighbors join in the cheer.
In a month’s time, Nabiritha will be back to hospital for checkup after which she will be given glasses to help her read in school. Her days of darkness will finally be over and she will be able to lead a normal life, like other children.
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